Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How to Create a Fun Disneyland Unit Study

When there is fun to be had, learning happens spontaneously. Some would even say magically. We've done unit studies on the "serious stuff," but our most engaging learning adventures are born from fun unit studies, i.e, anything that has anything to do with Disneyland.

But how could Disneyland be transformed into a unit study? How do you divert attention away from the squees of "are we going? are we going?" to authentic learning?

How do you take a mammoth concept and widdle it down to something manageable?

I've written before about how to make a vacation to Disneyland a learning experience, using New Orleans Square as a theme. Here I will break it down again and focus, specifically, on Tomorrowland.

Depending on how much time you have to play with a unit study, start by:

1. Planning out possible units.

The Park is divided into 8 lands/areas:

a) Main Street U.S.A
b) Adventureland
c) New Orleans Square
d) Critter Country
e) Frontierland
f) Fantasyland
g) Tomorrowland
h) Toontown

Depending on your time, you can plot out one land per month, one land per week, or let them all blend in together seamlessly.

Once you have an idea of what overhead units to cover, you can start:

2. Rounding-up sub-topics to cover.

My preliminary list is mostly scribbles of ideas about little topics within a land that we could cover. If your children have visited Disneyland previously, you can ask their help.

Let's think about Tomorrowland.

Rides and attractions in Tomorrowland include:
  • Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters
  • Star Tours: The Adventures Continue
  • Space Mountain
  • Innoventions
  • Captain EO
  • Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
  • Astro Orbitor
  • Autopia
There's certainly the HUGE theme of space to cover, but what few visitors know about Tomorrowland is its commitment to the agrifuture.


Walt Disney predicted that an escalating population and growing commercial and industrial properties would leave little room for the farmlands of yesteryear. He decided that the people of the future would landscape commercial properties with practical and edible plants such as fruit trees, herb gardens and vegetable rows. Most of these plants are so aesthetically placed that most guests do not realize that the landscape is edible, a comparable secret garden.

You could, then, also cover topics such as:

  • the agrifuture
  • space travel
  • inventions
  • technology
  • automobiles
  • ocean life (via Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage)
That list is still so general and SO HUGE. You certainly don't have to cover everything, and if you try to, it will probably feel comparable to riding the Tea Cups too fast. Therefore, take your time, plot out the most interesting topics for your family and allow yourself to venture down a side trail in learning.

The next step is:

3. Paring down and finding your resources.

As an example, here is my list of Tomorrowland topics:

  • space (the serious: planets, asteroids and comets, moons and space travel; the fun: aliens)
  • ocean life (fish, marine mammals, coral, jellyfish, shellfish)
Keep it simple.

Since these are child-friendly topics, resources abound on the internet, through the library and on Youtube.

a)Visit the library to find appropriate books
b) Round-up appropriate videos (they don't all have to be educational so long as you're talking about them.)
c) Make Youtube playlists of appropriate videos
d) Visit craft sites or consult craft books for themed projects
e) Think about relevent science topics and experiments to cover
f) Brainstorm any fun food to enjoy with this unit
g) Collect (from the library, Youtube, Pandora, etc.) music fitting your theme.

Rounding-up resources may lead you to new ideas. Embrace them! Once you've got everything collected:

4. Make a tentative plan.

Sample Plan for Tomorrowland:


Space Boy by Leo Landry
There's No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library)
Here Come the Aliens! by Colin McNaughton
Non-fiction books on planets, astronauts and space travel

Hello Ocean by Pam Munoz
Other library books on ocean life


The Universe: The Mega Collection
The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor
Library videos about space
More library videos about ocean life
Star Wars: The Complete Saga
Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins
Finding Nemo

Crafts/Art Projects:

-Make a spaceship out of tubes
-Create an alien from random art supplies (foam, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, paint, stickers)
-Splash paint stars on a black poster board. Paint planets, asteroids, and comets.


-Create a Saturn planet from a foam ball and learn about buoyancy by placing "Saturn" in a sink full of water.
-Chart the phases of the moon together
-Make a wave bottle.

Fun Food:

- Make a Mars cake (or an Earth, Saturn, or Jupiter cake!)

- Make sun and planet cookies (of differing sizes) and line them up according to position relative to the sun
- Make tuna and seaweed (spinach leaves) sandwiches

Memory making/Field trips:

- Go star-gazing at night
- Visit a space center
- Visit an aquarium (even if it's only the one at the local pet store!)


- Make "just keep swimming" your motto for the month! Talk about what determination and progress means. Model what it means to "push through" and award your children for their efforts.

And most of all: Have Fun!

A wealth of information, fun topics, and exciting moments awaits in every unit study. This is only a sample of what your unit study could look like. Imagine how much your children will absorb and remember through exploring space and ocean life in fun, enjoyable ways! Not only that, but when they stroll through Tomorrowland, the rockets swirling on the Astro Orbitor will fascinate, the space journey on Star Tours will excite, and shooting evil aliens on Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters will remind them on their own goofy alien creations. Submerging below the sea on Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage will delight them as they spy familiar ocean creatures.

If planning unit studies around Disneyland still seems too mammoth a task, wait and check back often for my e-book on Disneyland Unit Studies!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Katy and the Big Snow

This week we rowed Virginia Lee Burton's wintry story, Katy and the Big Snow .

Katy is "beautiful red crawler tractor" who works hard and diligently. When the town of Geoppolis becomes heavily snowed in, the Highway Department changes Katy's bulldozer to a snow plow and relies on her strength and determination to dig everyone out.

We had fun with this winter book. We learned about responsibilities, cooperation, road signs, and snow-plowing (with a hands-on activity of shaving-cream-snow!).

Social Studies: Relationships- Responsibilities

On the first day of rowing Katy and the Big Snow, we discussed responsibility within the story. We talked about Katy's responsibility as a worker for the Highway Department and everyone who relied on her to help them get out of the snow: the police department, fire department, electric and telephone companies, doctors, etc.

We brought the topic closer to home and talked about our own responsibilities. At first, Aidyn had trouble listing any of his responsibilities, but we created a chain of effects if he did not keep up his responsibilities. For example, we talked about how he is responsible for keeping his teeth clean and how that affects everyone else. If he did not keep his teeth clean, we would have to take him to the dentist and pay for treatment, and the money that would go to treatment might not be spent on other, more fun, things. If he did not keep his teeth clean, he might be in pain and have to miss school days, which could affect his learning, etc. I also reminded him of his other responsibilities around the house (such as cleaning doorknobs), which helps keeps everyone at home healthy and clean.

Social Studies: Running a city

Through reading the book many times, we learned how a city runs and how specific departments rely on others. If one person does not do his job, others are surely affected.

Social Studies: City- Street Signs

We had so much fun learning about street signs! I printed out a book of streets signs from We talked about each sign individually, and I acted out (via a white board and a toy car) what each sign meant. Aidyn enjoyed acting out different scenarios (if the driver did NOT see the yield sign and, therefore, crashed into a truck or if he DID see the sign and was safe).

Later, while I was driving our own car, he noticed several different road signs, some that we went over and completely new ones. In acting out different scenarios, he learned how important road signs are and how important it is for drivers to be aware of and responsive to them.

Sensory Play: Shaving Cream Snow

After laying cellophane on our dining room table, we made a city out of wooden blocks and brought in some toy cars and trains.

Soon toy cars couldn't drive through the snowy sludge, so a train acted as the snow plow.

This was meant to only be a short activity, but Aidyn ended up "playing in the snow" for the majority of the day.

Cooking 101: Snowflake and Snowpeople Pancakes

In an effort to work on his fine motor skills (in pouring batter and flipping pancakes) but mostly for fun, we made snowflake and snowpeople pancakes one morning.

Luckily snowflakes are all unique so all his splatters were praised as fine snowflakes!

Art: Snowflake-making

Fresh off learning how to make paper airplanes, Aidyn tried his hand at cutting out snowflake patterns. Aidyn and I, along with our uber-talented friend, Amanda, made PILES of snowflakes. Below is a photo of about 10% of them.

Art: Gingerbread House

At Aidyn's art class, we made a gingerbread house with all the trimmings!


Aidyn's handwriting is as atrocious as a medical doctor's so we've been implementing copywork into our day. Homeschool Share has copywork pages available for all the FIAR titles.

Other stuff:


Aidyn just finished up Chapter 11 of his California Math book. It covered patterns, which for Aidyn was easy-peasy but just right to ease into winter break. When we return to schooling, he'll be working on reviewing place value to 100.

Phonics/Language Arts:

We just finished the chapter on long i (-i_e, -igh-, and -ie). Words like sight, night, light, etc. were tricky for him to learn but playing with phonics tiles helped as did several games of Long-i Bingo.

We also rented a Leap Frog Learning Pad to help with learning to read.

We breezed through Cat and Mouse in a Haunted House (Geronimo Stilton, No. 3) in one day! He loves the Geronimo Stilton graphic novels.

We've also been reading several Christmas stories, like One Splendid Tree, and re-reading favorites like Cranberry Christmas and Great Joy.


Aidyn wrapped up his last weeks of karate before the winter break and learned some new defensive moves.

Fun stuff:

After a character class on sensitivity, we attended a show by Lariat Larry, who twirled his ropes, lassoed a few children, and told animated stories about rattlesnakes guarding gold in a cave and folk tales of Pecos Bill.

Every day, rain or shine, Aidyn has been goofing off outdoors with his friends, tracking toy trains through the mud, playing tag and hide-n-seek, and telling scary stories.

We have just begun our winter break and plan to play, lounge around, reflect on the past year and make goals for the next one!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Reading

Beginning on the first of December, we start reading holiday books and open one door each night on our advent calendar house. Last year we read one or two chapters a night of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, but this year we are reading (and rereading!) holiday picture books. We have enjoyed some wonderful ones, so I thought I would share our favorites.

Cranberry Christmas by Wende and Harry Devlin

This book is a follow-up of Cranberry Thanksgiving, in which we meet Grandmother, Maggie, and the gruff but lovable Mr. Whiskers who all live near a cranberry bog in Cranberryport, New England. In Cranberry Christmas, we find that Mr. Whiskers is in danger of losing his ice-skating pond, where he enjoys having the neighborhood children skate at their leisure, to old Cyrus Grape. Not only that, but Mr. Whiskers is also flustered that his well-meaning sister will be visiting soon and forcing him to move in with her, as she believes he cannot take care of himself. Maggie and Grandmother, Mr. Whiskers' sweet friends, help him out when Mr. Whiskers needs it most.

We love this book! Mr. Whiskers is a favorite character from Cranberry Thanksgiving, but the story holds up well on its own. I adore the style of illustration, as it reminds me of books I read when I was younger. Aidyn loves hearing about Mr. Whiskers and his silly sayings ("Suffering codfish!). But within its pages, we learn about community service, helping friends when they need support, and even the mess of property deeds and rightful ownership!

Dream Snow by Eric Carle

We love Eric Carle books, especially The Grouchy Ladybug and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This holiday favorite, Dream Snow, is about a man who dreams of winter snow and celebrates the beauty of the holiday with the animals who live on his farm and a quaint little tree. At the end is a sweet little musical surprise.

I think this book is delightful. It's perfect for little ones, but Aidyn enjoyed the simple story, the names of the farm animals, and, of course, the little surprise at the end.

Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Great Joy  is a story about a little girl named Frances who spies a lonely organ grinder and his monkey from her apartment window. Despite having a very important pageant to practice for, Frances is intrigued by the organ grinder's life and even forces herself to stay awake one night to see where he goes, as everyone must go "somewhere." We later discover that this little girl's great joy is pinned on including this man in her world, if only for a moment.

 Although Great Joy isn't as secular as I would like it to be, the message is worldly and the emotions of the characters are palpable. This story is a little window into a world most of us pass by without thinking: where do the lonely people go when the streets are quiet? The realistic illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline beautifully capture the time and space of this 1930s tale and the innocent and insistent curiosity on little Frances' face. This story also gave us an opportunity to talk about joy, what it is, where it comes from, and the source of Frances' joy.

Other holiday books we have shared and enjoy:

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
The Night before Christmas by Clement C. Moore
A Creature Was Stirring: One Boy's Night before Christmas by Carter Goodrich
The Wild Christmas Reindeer  by Jan Brett

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Learning with Literature

Books are the passports to adventure. Within their pages, contextual learning takes place. Culture is no longer some abstract thought, a definition too large and beautiful to put into words. Rather, through reading, we absorb culture, among other things. Through reading we ingest ideas about science, history, and the workings of our world and innermost feelings.

That is why exposure to rich literature is so valuable to children and adults alike.

But that's not it.

Reading with our children helps them absorb the unspoken rules of our language, the intricacies of grammar and syntax. It increases their own collection of words, often spawning little wordsmiths who surprisingly utter words like "spectacular" and "regardless."

Sharing a story with our children also helps bond us, as parents to our children and as human beings who share the experience of figuring out this confusing world.

Below are some links to stories we our favorite stories we have shared and the activities we have done to further breathe life into these stories. I will be adding to this cumulative list often, so keep checking back for more titles.

Stories from Five In a Row: Volume 1:

(You do not need to purchase FIAR to enjoy these titles. Most can be found at your local library or used book store)

Very Last First Time
Cranberry Thanksgiving
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World
Katy and the Big Snow
Night of the Moonjellies
Cranberry Thanksgiving + Fall Unit Study + Storm in the Night

More Stories:

The First Dog
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom


Stories about the rainforest
Winter Holiday Stories
The History of Film and Animation + The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Ancient Egypt

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Very Last First Time Unit

This week, we rowed a charming book by Jan Andrews called Very Last First Time, a story about an Inuit girl in Northern Canada, who walks on the seabed to collect mussels when the tide is out, for the very first time. This story captures a slice of Inuit life and echoes common feelings experienced by children everywhere-- the pride completing a rite of passage, the fear of the dark, and overcoming an imagination that spirals out of control.

This was the perfect book to read during this time of year when the weather gets chilly and we start talking about the north pole.
This, of course, is a Five in a Row: Volume 1 selection. I gathered many ideas from the FIAR book as well as the FIAR forums and Homeschool Share.
Social Studies: Geography
After reading for our very first time, we immediately checked the globe for Ungava Bay, Canada. We looked at the location in relation to where we live, and I asked Aidyn to consider the weather, being that Ungava Bay is even further from the sun than we are.
He colored his story disk before finding Ungava Bay on his world map.

We also explored some facts about Canada.

Social Studies: Inuit Culture

The Inuit culture was a completely new topic for Aidyn. I, too, had never known about their mussel-collecting tradition.

Aidyn and I both watched a video about real Inuits digging a hole in the ice after the tide has gone out and collecting mussels in the eerie ice cave.

We also watched a video about the Inuit way of life.

In our Childcraft: About Us book, we read about Inuit families and learned how they prize their children and rarely punish them. We also learned how they hunt and live day-to-day.

Art: Colors and Artistic Style

Illustrator Ian Wallace used warm and cool colors and a pointillist style to make these beautiful pictures of arctic life. Before reading on this day, I prompted Aidyn to pay attention to the artwork throughout the story.

I showed him the difference between warm and cool colors and pointed out colors later to informally quiz him. Because of the nature of the story (cool conditions of the arctic vs. Eve's warm parka), learning the difference between warm and cool colors was easy-peasy.

I also asked him to look at the dotting style of the work before we replicated it ourselves. We used cotton-tipped swabs to make the dots.

Aidyn said this was two people looking into an ice hole while the sun was shining:
 This one's mine:

In Aidyn's Art Adventures class this week, they learned about shading, and he came out with a beautiful black-and-white picture of objects with shading.
In his K-2 Art class, he made an adorable mouse pad (which really resembled a mouse!).
Science: Dressing for Conditions
We had a lot of fun with science this week! We talked about how the Inuits must dress in the arctic cold. We looked at their parkas, fluffy hoods and sturdy boots.
I arranged piles of Aidyn's clothes in the living room. I mixed up summer clothes, sandals, swim shorts and winter clothes, snow boots, gloves, and scarves.
Beforehand, I had set up two videos to play of either summer or winter conditions. When I put on the video, I gave him some preliminary clues such as temperature and plans for the day (for example, "It's 100 degrees outside and we're going to the beach. Get dressed quickly!). He loved that I used a stopwatch to time him and, in a flurry, he dressed for each condition, thinking and correcting errors (like forgetting to take his swim shorts off before putting on snow boots!).
Silly monkey face in summer outfit. Total time: 1 min, 31 sec.

Winter outfit. Total time: 2 min, 32 sec. (Due to more layers, I suppose).

Language Arts: Vocabulary and Drama

I had printed out 13 verbs used in the story. Some of them were familiar to Aidyn (singing, shoveling, dragging) while others were new and a bit challenging (prying, heaving, peering). We played a little game with them to make remembering easy.

First I would pull a vocabulary word for him to act out. If he were stumped, he could say, "Definition, please." After I read the definition, he could usually act the hard ones out. He earned a point for every word he successfully acted out (he got all 13).

Then I cycled through them again, only without definitions and only hints for the really hard ones.

The third time, I timed him. He loves being timed and acting out words instead of explaining them. It was so fun watching him learn new words through drama.

In his other studies, he's progressing with learning phonics and has been working on long a sounds, specifically with -ai-, -ay, and -a_e.

We use Letter Tiles for hands-on practice.

I place -ay, -ai-, -ame, and -ane tiles to the far right and beginning and ending sounds (multiple letters and blends like bl-, fr-, and sh-). I made flashcards with long a words and one-by-one challenge him to recreate the word with tiles and read it in "chunks" and then fluidly. I'm hoping, in doing this, he learns that morphemes can be manipulated and placed at the beginning, middle and endings of words.

With math, he's continuing practice with subtraction. The other day I generated and printed a worksheet and mistakenly used double digit numbers. After a little squirming and a new way to learn how to subract (using his base ten blocks), Aidyn was able to catch on pretty quickly. He has been scoring 95% consistently on worksheets (without assistance) and yesterday got a 100% on a 20-question sheet.

This month, we're taking a break from FIAR and will be reading holiday stories and doing activities based off those particular books.